Patti Bacchus: B.C.’s school mask muddle

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      What a fustercluck.

      For a moment or two on Monday (March 29), it seemed that B.C.’s increasingly beleaguered provincial health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry, was coming around to what her colleagues across the country, and the U.S. Centres for Disease Control, have acknowledged for months: masks are a key layer of protection in K-12 schools.

      I watched the Monday media briefing she did with Premier John Horgan and Health Minister Adrian Dix where she appeared to choke on her words before saying, “We’re going to be updating our public health guidance to support mask-wearing for all students down to Grade 4, across the province.”

      Wait, did she just say “support”? Weren’t we doing that already?

      Outside B.C., it’s widely accepted that students from Grade 4 and up should wear masks at school, except for when eating or drinking, and younger kids should be encouraged to wear them as well. Exceptions can and should be made for those who have difficulty wearing masks.

      It was a disaster of a media briefing when Horgan blamed people in their twenties and thirties for the climbing COVID case counts and alienated a generation of voters who have been working frontline jobs in healthcare, retail, firefighting, policing, and all those other essential services while often sharing homes with multiple roommates because of B.C.’s high housing costs.

      Heck, a lot of them have young kids who go to mask-optional schools in a province that doesn’t like to test kids without COVID-19 symptoms, while we know kids are often asymptomatic and can spread the virus.

      Teachers’ pleas for stronger safety measures have been dismissed for months

      Never mind that Horgan has been ignoring pleas to make schools safer for months while WorkSafeBC quietly approved teachers’ and education assistants’ claims for catching COVID-19 at work, or that he refuses to require those coming from out of province to quarantine on arriving in B.C.

      Horgan is also the genius who let ski resorts stay open through spring break, with entirely predictable results. Sure, blame the young folks and not your own lack of effective leadership, Mr. Premier.

      Premier John Horgan

      Alas, the hopeful bit of mask news—which implied that B.C. might finally catch up to other jurisdictions and require students in Grade 4 and up to wear masks, something teachers and many parents have been pleading for since the start of the school year—seemed to be not quite that, unfortunately.

      Or did it?

      It seemed not on Monday night, when B.C.’s deputy minister of education, Scott MacDonald, sent a bulletin to school superintendents and school principals saying public health guidance was being amended to only “support and encourage” grades four to 12 students to wear masks at school.

      Yet the B.C. Teachers’ Federation (BCTF) insisted it had been told, in no uncertain terms, that masks would be required for Grade 4 and up, and they were not going to accept another bait-and-switch like the one last July, when government changed the back-to-school plan at the 11th hour, and without informing the teachers’ union before making a public announcement.

      I emailed the Ministry of Education on Tuesday morning (March 30) to ask for clarification on what the new mask rules for schools were, and it took 12 hours to get an answer that should have been simple and quick, given the new health orders went into effect at midnight on March 29.

      How not to communicate in a crisis

      Then I heard Henry on CBC radio’s Early Edition show Tuesday say she was revising “guidance that includes mask-wearing down to Grade 4” and that it was not an order, just guidance.

      Oh. Kay.

      The rest of Tuesday was communications chaos, with school staff meetings scheduled and cancelled as everyone tried to figure out if masks would be required, recommended, supported, encouraged, or included. It was as clear as mud.

      It took until just after nine p.m. Tuesday to get confirmation by email from Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside’s staff that masks would, indeed, be required for students Grade 4 and up, even while seated in class, with exceptions for those who have difficulty wearing masks, although the B.C. Centres for Disease Control site was updated to say “should”, not "required", causing even more confusion. Good grief.

      Education Minister Jennifer  Whiteside

      It was a master class in how not to communicate during a public health crisis, and it left school districts scrambling to figure out if “guidance” was different from “mandate” or “order”, and, honestly, how much are we paying these “leaders” to screw up something so simple?

      Why so much resistance to masks in schools?

      This school mask fiasco has been mind-boggling. I know a lot of folks are tired of the term “gaslighting,” but that’s exactly what government and health officials are doing to those who have been raising the alarm about airborne-virus transmission and calling for stronger school safety measures. Instead of acknowledging the concern and the science, they’ve dismissed it with virtual pats on the head and assurance that schools are magical places where viruses don’t transmit like they do in other workplaces, homes, or restaurants.

      Government and public health officials backed themselves into a corner on the issue by insisting schools were safe, with almost no viral transmission, yet they won’t release data to prove that. Clearly, WorkSafeBC acknowledges education workers are catching it at work or they wouldn’t be approving their claims.

      If there truly has been little to no transmission, why support masks now? That’s the uncomfortable corner Henry and company have wedged themselves into, which may explain why she choked on her words Monday.

      If it hadn’t been for Fraser Health president Dr. Victoria Lee having had enough of the mealy-mouthed provincial “guidance” last weekend and breaking ranks by going it alone and issuing a mask order for Surrey schools, I doubt we would have finally gotten movement on the B.C.-wide school mask mandate at all.

      Dr. Victoria Lee, president and CEO of Fraser Health.
      Fraser Health

      Sure, health officials have been learning as they go, and they know a lot more about the COVID-19 virus now than they did a year ago. Yet for some reason, almost every other province’s health officials and governments knew it made sense for kids from Grade 4 and up to wear masks at school. Henry refused to follow suit despite thousands of COVID-19 “exposures” in schools and more contagious variants of concern rampaging through communities.

      I don’t know any other employee group that’s had to plead so hard for better safety measures. Lots of people face risks: healthcare workers, first responders, and those who work in grocery stores and other frontline jobs. As far as I can tell, they get as much in terms of safety measures as is possible while still doing their jobs, but people who work in schools are told it’s safe to spend hours a day indoors in crowded classrooms, where masks were optional until this week.

      The original back-to-school plan also called for reduced “density” in schools to enable physical distancing. That was abruptly changed late last July to remove density limits (the bait-and-switch), while a few districts tried to work with governments guidelines and go a bit further, like Vancouver, with its hybrid schedule for secondary schools that keeps in-class sizes to a maximum of 15.

      That struck me as a prudent and innovative approach when there were still so many unknowns about the virus, and the Ministry of Education accepted Vancouver’s plan until some parents started to complain about it. Then government starting pressuring the VSB to change course, with a full return to in-class learning.


      Good grief. What a bunch of mixed messages and muddled decisions. For every teacher or support worker who’s gotten sick, there are dozens, perhaps hundreds, who have been going to school in fear each day that they’ll bring the virus home to vulnerable family members—not to mention those who have medical vulnerabilities themselves. What toll has that taken on their mental health and relationships?

      Much of this could have been avoided if the BCTF’s requests for stronger mask mandates hadn’t been dismissed for the past seven months.

      You’ve heard the arguments. First, masks weren’t effective and might do more harm than good. Kids would fiddle with them and touch their faces more (are people even catching COVID from touching their faces?). Then it was too hard for kids to wear masks, despite the fact that they manage to wear them on public transit, in stores, on B.C. Ferries, and pretty well anywhere else they go.

      It sounds like newish Education Minister Whiteside finally flexed some ministerial muscle and decided to cut the confusion and issued a clear statement on Tuesday night. Good on her.

      Horgan government treats teachers with paternalistic disdain

      I’m fed up with the games some in charge are playing with their petty power struggles and insistence that they know better than their counterparts in other provinces and jurisdictions, including the U.S. Centres for Disease Control, which states that correct and consistent mask use is a key COVID-19 prevention strategy for schools.

      It’s symptomatic of the paternalistic way teachers, who work in a female-dominated profession, have been treated for too long. I thought the Horgan government would be different, but I thought wrong.

      Parents and education workers shouldn’t have to plead for safety in their workplaces. That’s what we elect and pay leaders to ensure.

      Although this has been a muddled mess, Whiteside’s statement is a hopeful sign the new minister has found her feet and is ready to dig in her heels and do what’s right. Don’t underestimate the kind of resistance she has to push through, at both the cabinet table and with her ministry staff, and with partner groups like the B.C. School Trustees Association, which has been less than supportive when it comes to the mask mandate.

      Let’s hope we see more of this side of Whiteside.

      Patti Bacchus is the Georgia Straight K-12 education columnist. She was chair of the Vancouver school board from 2008 to 2014.